Illustrating a Life in Fashion and Design: ‘Seamless from Biba’ by Barbara Hulanicki

These days, books on fashion and design (be they glossy depictions of trends or movements or biographies of prominent creative personalities) are undoubtedly big business. Such publications tend to come in large size hardback formats and weigh considerably more than most books, as the rationale seems to be that the thicker the paper and the heavier the tome the more respectable its perception by the reader.

I admit that when I received the press release about Seamless from Biba, a ‘pictorial celebration’ of designer Barbara Hulanicki’s career, I was sceptical about the actual book. On a first glance, I didn’t like the graphics and the overly busy design with colourful images stretched across the spreads. This seemed, on my first perception, an unusual publication in that it didn’t belong to the realm of lustrous volumes on fashion, art and design with their pages featuring generous blank spaces, serif typefaces and carefully geometrically aligned paragraphs and photographs. However, upon receiving my review copy of Seamless in the post, I became immensely engrossed in the book and the manifold stories it tells.

Born in Poland and raised in England, Barbara Hulanicki began her career as a freelance fashion illustrator and went on to work for British Vogue, The Times and The Observer. She founded the store and label Biba in 1964 with her late husband Stephen Fitz-Simon, a venture that traded very successfully until it closed its doors in 1976. After that, Hulanicki went on to work for Fiorucci and Cacharel and also designed a children’s range for the Japanese market. She also worked as a fashion photographer for a while before reinventing herself as an interior designer in Miami Beach. She has designed wallpaper, paint and new clothes ranges for George and Topshop. She was awarded an OBE in 2012 and an RDI in 2008, received honorary doctorates from several institutions and has won awards in many fields, including one from the American Institute of Architects for her interior design work. Now in her 70s, she divides her time between Miami Beach and London.

Designed by Hulanicki herself, Seamless from Biba is a book not only about the final product but also about the narrative and process that leads to it. It invites the reader into the designer’s intimate creative method and her final results by laying down the images as a mood board rather than as a sleek display. In this sense, Seamless becomes a rich tapestry that educates its readers into the artistic practice that leads to production, and it does this by highlighting the importance of welcoming inspiration from what surrounds you at all times rather than focussing on the final output.

Seamless is divided into six sections that mirror Hulanicki’s diverse career and interests: ‘Illustration’, ‘Photography’, ‘Product Design’, ‘Interior Design’, ‘Costumes’, ‘Print Design’ and ‘Biba’. It contains forewords by Chris Blackwell, Molly Parkin, Felicity Green, Twiggy and Leigh Lawson, and ‘verbal vignettes’ by Delisia and Chris Price that narrate Hulanicki’s influence on so many levels in the sphere of fashion and design. All in all, this is much more than just a biographic coffee table book on yet another career in fashion and design. Seamless from Biba is a voyage through the creations produced by one of the most prolific and influential designers of the twentieth century that deserves more attention than most current heavy and shiny tomes on fashion and design.